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State Of Emergency Declared; Lawrence Mayor Says Gas Company 'Hiding From The Problem'

LAWRENCE (CBS) – Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has declared a state of emergency in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover following a series of gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley.

Baker said during a Friday afternoon press conference that the state of emergency was declared so the Department of Public Utilities can select who is in charge of the recovery efforts.

Related: Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions: What We Know

Baker and Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera were both critical of Columbia Gas' response in the nearly-24 hours since dozens of fires broke out in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.

"Today, on a number of very significant issues, we heard one thing and something else happened," Baker said of Columbia Gas' response.

Figueroa home lawrence
The Figueroa home on Chickering Road in Lawrence exploded Sept. 13, 2018. The chimney crushed an SUV, killing Leonel Rondon. (WBZ-TV)

Eversource will now take the lead in recovery efforts.

"Eversource is going to be in charge of this project from this point forward. We believe that will make a big difference with respect to the relationship between what gets told to us and what actually happens on the ground."

Related: 'Under No Circumstances' Should Merrimack Valley Residents Turn Gas Back On

Rivera said Columbia Gas has fallen short from the start.

"The least informed and the last to act has been Columbia Gas," Rivera said.

Read: List Of Streets Where Emergency Crews Will Visit

Read: Andover Safe Streets List

Read: North Andover Safe Streets List

"We have tried to no avail to give Columbia Gas the space, the traction, the time to effect a coherent plan that deals with the three biggest issues in front of us: a fundamental understanding of what happened and why; a basic plan to clear the dwellings and businesses of gas so as to get the lights back on… and a plan to get people back in their homes and business as soon as possible in the safest way. We are about in hour 23, and none of these is clear to anyone."

Rivera said that as he toured the worst hit areas of Lawrence Friday with Gov. Baker and Senator Elizabeth Warren, they saw no Columbia Gas crews at work.

Merrimack Valley Explosions Dan River
Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera was critical of Columbia Gas' response following explosions in the Merrimack Valley. (WBZ-TV)

Mayor Rivera harshly criticized Columbia Gas for establishing their command center in a different location from the rest of the massive state and federal emergency response.

"They're hiding from the problem," Rivera said. "If they were here they'd have to see the major who's here from State Police, they'd have to see the governor's staff, my staff, the chief's. They'd have to see their faces every five seconds. They're not here."

Rivera then called on Columbia Gas to hold a public meeting Friday afternoon to answer questions before the media. A short time later, Columbia Gas announced its president would hold a 4 p.m. press conference.

Earlier in the day, residents in North Andover attended a meeting with Columbia Gas representatives, thinking they would have questions answered. Instead, they left a 15-minute meeting angry when employees simply wrote down questions, but did not answer them.

Baker said he was willing to give Columbia Gas the benefit of the doubt as the events unfolded, but "the follow through just wasn't there. We don't have time… We need to get on with this."

"There were a series of commitments that were made with respect to what was going to happen between 7:00 in the morning and 3:00 this afternoon," Baker added. "The performance relative to those representations has been so far below what was talked about this morning that it raised major issues in our mind about the leadership team's ability there to actually deliver for the people of Massachusetts."

"We were asking for a heavy lift," Mayor Rivera conceded. "We weren't expecting them to hit it out of the park, but we sure did want them to swing the bat."

"We had a responsibility to give them that opportunity - and they spent it and wasted it."

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